I was leaving Santa Maria fully refreshed, strong, with clean clothes and with high morale. I knew the road from now on would get difficult but I was ready to tackle all the obstacles it had waiting for me. I knew it would get hard. After all I was going to attempt cycling across the highest mountain pass in Argentina at 4,495 m.a.s.l. I have been over 5,000 metres in India twice already but I never got there using my own strength. Additionally, I got very sick at 4,500 metres due to my lack of experience and recklessnes. I just kept riding my motorcycle not paying attention to altitude and when I stopped for the night, AMS hit me like a sledgehammer. How would it be this time? Could I endure such heavy physical activity at such high altitudes? This question had been on my mind all the time – especially that a much stronger cyclist whom I met in Sta Maria told me he would not be going on this pass due to very steep ascent and high altitude gain over a short distance of time. When I heard this, I knew I had to try, in the same way I had to cross Democratic Republic of Congo when I was told how awful the road was there. After all, adventure requires sacrifice and suffering. Otherwise it would not have been an adventure. If we climbed Capicua through an easy scramble, if it was even possible, in a day or two, it would not have been anything special, just another day or two of climbing. It was the same this time. I had to try something I have never tried befre and which I knew would be hard, in order to get the sense of adventure and, hopefully, accomplishment.
The road from Sta. Maria to Cafayate was beautiful, meandering inside a lush green valley full of vinyards. The day was very hot and I had to carry plenty of water, but the ride was pleasant. I took a 10km detour to see ‘Ruinas de los Quilmes’ – the ruins of the largest pre-Columbian settlement in Argentina occupying the area of about 30 hectares. The settlement dates back to ca 850 AD and is believed to have been inhabited by up to 5,000 Quilmes people at its heights. It was a very long day of cycling but in a beautiful scenery of the valleys of Calchaquí, culminating in visiting an uncle of my friend Pablo. I was offered empanadas, local wine and nice bed and shower. On the next day I was ready to go further.
The paved road stopped about 20kms north of Cafayate. Little did I know at that time that I would not see tarmac in 8 days. The day was even hotter than the one before and the road conditions were very bad. Washboard, lots of loose sand and gravel, and constant steep ascents and descents in heavy heat made the cycling very difficult. I even started doubting if I should even attempt cycling on Abra del Acay while I was suffering so much already. What if the road was as bad as here up there? What would I do? Push the bike? I made a plan to cycle to a town of Molinos which was 110 kms away from Cafayate. I ate biscuits with Dulce de Leche, drank lots of water, and kept cycling. About 40 kms from Molinos I started feeling very weak. It might have been the heat, dehydration, or the fact that I didn’t eat a lot the night before. As I was pushing forward with my head pointing down to avoid the sun, a motorcyclist stopped by and asked me if I had a puncture repair kit, because he had got a flat tyre. He looked a bit distressed. ‘I do have a repair kit’, I answered, ‘but not for you, for a bicycle only’. ‘Con camara o sin camara?’ I asked, pointing at his tyre and feeling proud of the Spanish vocabulary I learned on my motorcycle trip across Patagonia. ‘Sin camara’, he replied. There is ‘gomeria’ (puncture repair place) 15 kms down the road, I told him thinking… you can ride on a tubeless tyre for many kilometres more and you’ll be there in no time while every crank gives me pain. I’d trade places with you today. Having been thinking this, little did I know that 10 kms later I’d break a cable in my derauiller. Suddenly 27 speeds reduced to just 3, just when I needed them most. I adjusted the cable so the chain was approximately in the middle of the cassette, wound it up around the stem and fixed it in place using the trucker’s hitch I learned in Cochamo. From then I carried on to Molinos. By the time I fixed the issue, it got a bit colder and the ride was more pleasant. I got to Molinos just before it got dark. I bought some beer (Salta Negra), steak, and began making dinner at the main square. Before I got to town I asked a local gaucho if there was a cycle repair shop in town so I could replace the broken cable. He said yes, which made me glad – not because I would have to ride the 40-50 kms more to the next bigger town but because this breakdown could jeopardise my entire Abra del Acay mission.
The shop was closed in the evening but I found it open in the morning on the next day and got the problem fixed in no time. It’s nice to ride a standard bicycle. It is easy to find spare parts everywhere. From then onwards I was taking it easy and cycling only up to 60 kms per day. In two days I got to a village of La Poma, situated at 3,000 m.a.s.l. For the past few days the road had been gently ascending up to the point where the heights started to become significant. In La Poma I started feeling light-headed. Was this the time to try my recently bought coca leaves, or aspirin? I began to think up the ascent strategy. Do I split up the next 25 kms of heavy ascent of 2,000 metres into three or two parts? How high do I want the camp(s) to be? As I didn’t manage to come to any conclusions, I decided to play it by the ear and see how I feel each day. I started cycling from La Poma quite late because the kids had either the school opening or closing ceremony and all the village went to see them perform. At the end I didn’t even manage to do any shopping because the shop didn’t seem to be opening any time soon and it was getting late. I had to do with what I had in my panniers as there was no food to obtain between here and San Antonio de Los Cobres, which was about 70kms away on the other side of the pass. I was cycling slowly to give my body time to accomodate to the altitude. I didn’t have to cycle fast anyway. I only had around 25kms to the pass, perhaps slightly more. I didn’t need to push it. I stuffed my mouth full of coca leaves, swallowed two aspirins, kept drinking plenty of water and chewing on hard and soft candy. Whatever was working, it seemed to do the trick. I was not getting a headache, although I was getting tired. Around 4pm I decided to call it quits for the day. I was at 3,800 m.a.s.l. at that point. I figured out that 800 metres of ascent in one day was good progress and I should stop while I was not feeling sick. It was better, I thought, to wake up feeling well and push it on the next day than wake up feeling tired and unwell and still having to climb 600-800 metres up to the pass. The strategy seemed to work. I woke up refreshed. I slept probably in excess of 12-13 hours on that night. Altitude makes you feel drowsy. As long as you exercise, keep the pressure up, you are fine. As soon as your heart-beat slows down and blood pressure decreases, you start feeling sleepy. I guess, this is why you can buy ‘cafeaspirin’ here. Coffeine keeps your pressure up and aspirin thins your blood. All that to push the blod further down your thinnest veins and keep your body oxygenated while the oxygen saturation levels in your blood get lower.
The next day (the DAY), was quite a hard, arduous work, but I was feeling strong and positive. I did not want to accept failure. I was well rested and high on sugar. I decided not to use coca leaves though as they hurt my gums but I ate candy like an addict. Candy and water, I was running on sugar fuel. It was all going well until probably 4,400 m.a.s.l. Then I began feeling a little bit whoozy and I had to take more frequent rests to drink and chew on yet another candy. Every kilometre felt longer and longer. Only 10, only 9, only 8… when is it going to end? My morale were still strong and got even stronger when I got a visual on the pass. Now I knew where I was going and what my target was. I locked my eyes on it and kept going. It can’t be more than 400 vertical metres now, I thought… I’ll push the bike if I have to. I saw a car go past me. The driver stopped and we talked briefly about cycling, travelling in general and art. Random topics. I had to tell him I had to go before I started feeling more sick. He understood. We said good bye and he whizzed past me. I saw him going up the hairpins and getting to the pass in no time. It was such a short distance for the car and yet such a long climb for me. Cycling teaches you patience. The wind picked up a little bit and was slowing me down, but at the same time, it cooled me a little bit, so I didn’t mind. I stopped thinking and just cycled, and ate candy, and drank. As my mind switched off, the time kept going faster and I found myself only about 500 metres away from the top. I pushed hard knowing that I had made it. Within a minute I was at the top, jumping… the altitude sickness seemed to not matter anymore. I was so happy to be at the top that I didn’t even think of a headache. I took pictures, jumped around and just enjoyed being there… and knowing that I will have about 20 kms of downhill riding from then on.
After spending about 15 minutes at the top I decided to go down around 700 metres and eat, then head off to San Antonio de Los Cobres. I thought that the rest of the day would be easy peasy. Unfortunately, here in the Andes it is never easy and surprises are lurking around every corner. As I was about maybe 15 kms away from my destination, the wind picked up and I saw lightning bolts in the near distance. Dark clouds were forming low above. I got onto 10 kms of tarmac but suddenly I was faced with 30-40 knot head wind and picking up in its strength. Additionally, I had to climb up a hill with this head wind. I thought to myself, I need a break from cycling, just 2-3 days of rest. As I climbed over the hill and the road turned I was pushed so hard in the back that I was doing perhaps 60-70 km/h. I would have enjoyed this ride but the lighting became so nice that I had to take the photos of the rainbow, dark clouds, and San Antonio de los Cobres covered in dense mist of sand swept across it with the heavy winds.
Fifteen minutes later I was in San Antonio, looking forward for the rest. Unfortunately, I only stayed there one day, at the end. The place was quite touristy, pricey, and had nothing to offer. There was no campsite, public internet was slow, someone stole my steaks. It was time to head off to Abra Pampa. Perhaps that would be a better town to stay in?
PS. More photos are available in part 2 of this post.